Symposium Introduction

Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel dismantles the critical pieties that uphold British literary studies, seeing them for the loaded weapons they are. Elaine Freedgood rejects the sacrosanct “seamlessness” and imaginary “greatness” of the Victorian novel—qualities, she informs us, that were constructed both retrospectively and wishfully, and as much for the sake of the critical practices they enthroned and the English departments they lent prestige as for the objects themselves. Realism is not all it’s cracked up to be, she tells us, and what it lacks in representational plenitude and formal coherence, it makes up for in ideological reach. The reading practices we’ve learned from Victorian fiction and its late-twentieth-century Anglo-American literary critical reification shape us as “imperial liberal subjects, always in more than one place at the same time, always inhabiting multiple domains in person or by proxy” (xvii). In turning us back to our common “planetarity,” in Gayatri Spivak’s phrase, Freedgood deflates the “great” Victorian novel, the fetish of “form,” and crucially, the “aesthetic racism” of dominant novel history.1

This is field-changing and field-challenging book, and its takedowns are vital, keyed to rebuilding rather than destruction. Working to “unthink novel history and restore the full oddness of the nineteenth-century novel” (x), Worlds Enough urges us to read otherwise and to read other things. Only by “displac[ing] the nineteenth-century novel from the masterful and still center of a novel history that is as contingent as the genre it tries to track” (xvii) can we stop denigrating other national and ethnic novel traditions, not to mention other genres and practices of cultural production, Anglophone and otherwise. Freedgood’s project, then, is not simply to illuminate literary history—which she does with a sharp eye, biting wit, and fierce political commitment—but to change its course.

For Sarah Brouillette, Worlds Enough “uncovers how the English realist novel has been constructed in a way that is designed to exclude racialized others.” And as her contribution investigates, the book’s project by no means stops at “recognition” and “inclusion” of these others (nor “celebration” at all, as Freedgood writes in her reply)—terms cued to reformist ends that merely expand the canon and reinforce the reigning status quo of aesthetic value and critical evaluation. Worlds Enough reaches for a more radical overhaul, and Brouillette explores how this might square with her own goal of “communist study.” She asks a pressing question: “What kinds of challenges to how literary scholars think and teach . . . are actually meaningful enough to support the kinds of massively transformative social projects that are absolutely crucial now?” Freedgood ventures several answers in her reply, including abolishing the English Department.

Ronjuanee Chatterjee also grounds her contribution in our unprecedented, pandemic-flooded world, swirling with loss. She reads British realism, “through Freedgood and this pandemic,” as an “extinction of genre,” which in its “rogue intimacy with its own annihilation, converses with the possibility of our own.” Chatterjee unpacks two of the most virtuosic moves of Worlds Enough: how it uses the figures of metalepsis (a rupture of diegetic or ontological levels in fiction and beyond) and ballast (which Freedgood makes into a new literary figure herself) to expose “uncomfortable truths” about realism—an exposure that Chatterjee argues is “of a piece with minoritarian critiques of humanism” and the humanities. Realism is not a pinnacle of human achievement but a recent invention that serves to entrench imaginary divides between aesthetics and politics, culture and violence, and form and content. In responding to Chatterjee’s illumination of the vogue of formalism as “good object” in recent humanities scholarship and its costs, Freedgood argues that form has become not only a fetish in the Marxist sense (“the highest form of abstraction”) but also a talisman: “If I say form, I am doing real literary study. If I say race, if I say gender or transgender, if I say settler colonialism, I am doing something else. Something less refined, perhaps; something less rigorous.” It’s a gift to read Chatterjee and Freedgood dismantling this logic through their close exchange.

Building on the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Sukanya Banerjee argues that Worlds Enough “provincializes the Victorian realist novel.” It not only bares the messiness and discontuinities at the “functional core” of the Victorian novel, disrobing it of “the mantle it wears as the standard-bearer of a ‘classic realism,’” it also questions “its received position on the geoimperial map of metropolitan-colonial literatures.” Banerjee sees in Worlds Enough a new map. And given this “multipolar literary terrain,” she asks: So why call this novel “Victorian” at all? Freedgood answers with a fuller consideration of what we lose in “amputating” the Victorian from both earlier nineteenth-century Romanticism and the wider field of British imperial writing in India, the Caribbean, and Africa. And she imagines for us too what British literature courses and their syllabi might look like given this needed redrawing of maps, boundaries, and disciplines.

Freedgood’s brief introduction to her responses is far too modest; it is also characteristically generous in crediting the ideas of others, younger BIPOC scholars in particular, whom she reads (as I can attest) with interest and care and respect. She has been showing the rest of us what it means to do politically engaged scholarship her entire career. That she never stops interrogating her work—as scholar and educator both—and the extent to which it squares with her political commitments is just one more thing she teaches us. Would that we are were all as clear-sighted about the objects we study and how we study them. And speaking of wishes that follow from this book, here’s the most urgent: Let’s definitely not make the Victorian novel great again.


  1. To deflate form is also to deflate our estimation of ourselves as literary critics. I laughed aloud, and definitely at my own expense, when I read how Freedgood puts it: “If we invoke form, we are understood as truly knowing, in some guild-like fashion, the works we discuss” (xi).

Response

Brief Introduction

In these terrible times, it is incredibly heartening that four wonderful scholars would take the time, and the concentration (which I know is also in short supply), to respond to my book Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel. I wish I had had these responses before my final draft of the book, or ten years ago. I wish I had started thinking more seriously about how to teach in an anti-racist, de-colonial way a long time ago. I thought I was thinking about these issues, but I was never thinking enough. I was never willing to go far enough in my thought to suggest the changes that we really need to make. Sarah, Ronjaunee, and Sukanya have pushed me to make more radical claims, and make my own teaching practice go more and more off the grid. I am very grateful to these three intellectuals, as well as to Alicia Mireles Christoff, my student and teacher, for organizing and helping me think through the many issues raised in the three responses, and also to Anjuli Raza Kolb for initiating this forum. Thank you all very, very much! This is a great gift.

Response

No New Masters

On Elaine Freedgood’s Worlds Enough

It is an honor to have been asked to participate in this forum on Worlds Enough. I met Elaine Freedgood when I was working in my first job in the US and she came as a visiting speaker. The day of the event my department chair informed me that I was to provide the introduction to her talk. I pretended this would be easy, because naturally I was already well versed in Professor Freedgood’s entire oeuvre. When in fact, having only recently finished my narrow PhD in book history and postcolonial literature, and not having much occasion to read in Victorian studies, I had never read a word of it. Taking this terrifying task quite seriously, I scrambled to acquire and process as much of her writing as I could. A few short hours later I blushed through my stumbling introduction, and thought I only once detected her shaking her head against a point I was making. I took this as a success. I became a fan, and then a friend. Now, thirteen or so years later, I have just a few methodological points I wish to make about her provocative work. Here is hoping for another naysaying head shake!

In Worlds Enough, Freedgood argues that it is important to understand how critics have not just perceived but created what we take to be realist fiction; that the high-quality revered English realist novel is largely a retrospective construction engineered by critics in the 1970s and 1980s; and that we should continue to reconsider the critical standards that have determined whose work is valued and taught. In particular, she uncovers how the English realist novel has been constructed in a way that is designed to exclude racialized others. Celebration of the English novel as a site of perfect realist fiction “seems imprisoned in imperial and racial formations” (135), Freedgood argues, as one version of the novel is set up as the standard and then others are compared and thought deviant and lesser.

This is a totally right and good corrective. But I also wonder how, when, and where recognition of racist exclusions can become an effective counter to the actual unevenness of distribution of access to and engagement with the process of novel writing and reading. What if writing a novel in English—a novel read and taught in departments of English as a work of literature—is already inevitably an activity that aligns forcefully with the sort of access to resources denied to most people? Already a manifestation of maldistribution of wealth? Because whatever formal features your novel boasts or lacks—however far from or close to the (fake, imposed) standards of classic realism your work may be—the fact that you are in the system of circulation of English-language literary works already marks you out as part of a small special group, a cultured class of learned users of the language whose forms of expression will be set up as one standard to be aspired to, one form of achievement for a creative clerisy that controls what is deemed important to say and hear, controls the means of expression and amplification, celebration and valorization, value and acclaim.

Freedgood engages these facts, describing the very small “we” of literary studies given that “the ubiquity of homelessness and statelessness in our world makes education, study, reading, and thinking the precincts of the very few” (33). In fact, we all well know, this “we” is shrinking—though I would stress that I take thinking and study to be common ubiquitous practices by no means exclusive to academic departments. In any case, given the volatility and constraint of contemporary conditions, we have so many reasons to ask that, even as we expand the canon of realist fiction by taking work that has been marginalized and racialized as substandard to the best of English literary realism and bringing it into the “inside” of the highest ranks of English literary study, we also attack the very nature and ongoing existence of the inside itself. The question for me now always is: can our reading teach us not just how to understand how novel forms are historically instantiated, but how and why to fight the important fights going in on university campuses today,1 and how and why to think about a future of reading literature that does not depend upon exploited labor, indebted life, and maldistribution of the means of survival? This question can be rephrased as a methodological query implicit within Worlds Enough: when we think about the distribution of recognition, to what extent should we treat recognition as a desirable good, and to what extent should we more aggressively challenge the whole logic of literary studies, in the name of helping to end a situation in which people must, because of the very scarcity of the resources at stake, clamor for attention, for praise, for money?

My own research has focused recently on African publishing—literary publishing and also nonliterary English-language African writing for ephemeral distribution and digital devices. Freedgood’s insights help here. It is remarkable how the African realist literary novel form gets supports from development agencies because they perceive this kind of novel as a “good,” high, elite, aspirational style. It is remarkable also how Canadian volunteers who run writing workshops with aspiring authors complain about their manuscripts’ overt moralism and sloppy editing. The novel as they know it is seamless and sturdy. Like Freedgood, who is compelled to recuperate unruly novel forms consigned to premodernity, I have been fascinated by those novels deemed too poorly written, too sloppily edited, too messily constructed, too morality-minded, to be appreciated by writers trained in the Western novel tradition—writers who have already been published for developed-world readers, who seem naturally to want well-constructed pristine objects that are valuable not as transmission of a message but for their own sake.

My feeling—perhaps I’m wrong—is that by Freedgood’s lights, the decolonial gesture here would be to say: let us include the excluded fascinating bits; these are all interesting texts that we could study; those workshop leaders are imposing foreign standards. People in English literary study can do (and have done) dozens of things—sociological, narratological, political—with these works, looking beyond the standard of some perfect literary articulation. But the fact is, the global publishing industry does have a hierarchy of forms that determines who is publishable and marketable. There are more and less elite styles, more and less distinguished works, and claiming the top rank means achieving a particular kind of unity, clarity, purposiveness, editedness, cleanness. Being excluded from the ranks of acclaim is the fate of many aspiring writers, of course. Maldistribution is there already in the self-conception of the writer, in how they define goals and set about working toward them, in the choices they make about genre and audience, and in how much they even care about producing a cohesive, unified coherent work.

We thus arrive at a second methodological query, then, implicit in Worlds Enough: Can we reinforce and supplement decolonial study of the novel form, which aims at shifting the terms of inclusion and understanding how novel study has deployed and supported racism, with communist study of literary-novel history? For me, communist study foregrounds—as Freedgood herself often does—that our elite cultural system exists largely to solidify the dominance of particular modes of expression of cultural and material wealth, such as polite speech, reasonable discourse, formal mastery, intellectual sophistication, and political ambivalence. The fundamental nature of this elite cultural system is something to be argued with, fought against, and undermined wherever possible. So, just as we can ask what it means to build more diverse and inclusive canons within spaces of fundamental exclusion (English departments), and can wonder how study of the novel can be used to strengthen the fight against the conditions of the contemporary university, we can also use analysis of the literary-cultural publication system to identify that system’s actually constitutive inequities, which will exist so long as (and wherever) capitalist relations are dominant.

Reading Worlds Enough basically made me think a lot about these questions—more pressing and inescapable every day it seems. How we can observe, record, and name (name often and with precision) what is achieved by the whole idea that creativity, expression, intellectual formation, and thought itself, are concentrated in a few elite forms (such as English departments)? And what kinds of challenges to how literary scholars think and teach, and to what the publishing industry selects and prizes, are actually meaningful enough to support the kinds of massively transformative social projects that are absolutely crucial right now? Recognizing the legitimacy and achievement of writers once thought substandard and bringing them into the global canon of masterworks isn’t enough. We need to challenge the whole logic of the production of literary value. No more new masters.


  1. Dan Nemser and Brian Whitener, “From Occupy Everything to Cola for All,” Commune, March 13, 2020, https://communemag.com/from-occupy-everything-to-cola-for-all/.

  • Elaine Freedgood

    Reply

    How to Write, What to Read: Response to Sarah Brouillette

    I have learned a tremendous amount from Sarah Brouillette’s work. Sarah has continuously reminded me to be alert to the means of production in publishing: an issue even most Marxists scholars do not take into consideration. In particular, she has called attention to the very commercial and thus parochial canon of what we call postcolonial fiction: we canonize Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, but in general, we have not bothered to struggle with finding and teaching the less cosmopolitan and commercially successful writers (Sarah’s work is an exception). Toral Gajarawala makes the point, in Untouchable Fictions,1 that so much of postcolonial study—both in theory and in fiction, is produced by and for urban elites. Her work on Dalit literature reminds us that poor, rural writers have no use for many of the theorists and novelists we see as central to helping us understand the effects of empire. Those who felt those effects most profoundly, perhaps, have been left out and continue to be left out.

    English is a problem, as Ngugi Wa Tiongo pointed out long ago in his 1986 classic, Decolonising the Mind (which I couldn’t find in the library database right away because I spelled it with a “z”). There have been numerous books and articles from scholars working on language in Africa, India, and beyond that grapple brilliantly with the issue of what language to use, whom to address, how to move forward out of a colonized mind and a yearning for international recognition, acclaim, and possibly film contracts and prizes. I am not linguistically learned enough to write such a book, but I have followed debates on these issues with keen interest, feeling humbled (if not just dumb) about my own monolingualism.

    But English does not necessarily make one’s writing elite, or legible, to the literary powers that be: from Oxford University Press (one of the major cultural colonizers of the 19th and 20th centuries) to the Harvard English Department, from curricular lists and anthology tables of contents: most anglophones do not count. There is always a great, empty archive that attends our labor: we carry, in the form of the texts we admire and teach, the spoils of the victors, as Benjamin put it, and we call it “culture,” cutting off and cutting out most of the world. Many of the texts I teach are grounded in the violence of empire, slavery, and industrialization. I do not celebrate the texts I teach: I am more usually repelled than charmed by the Victorian novel and am always shocked to find out how many people actually “love” it in a way that makes me shudder.

    English is one prerequisite for commercial success and prestigious circulation (so are French, Spanish, German, and Portuguese) but it doesn’t accomplish that in and of itself. I would say that class (I too am a communist of sorts) has more to do with access to the public sphere than does language (although the two are connected: only certain poor people are monolingual in languages that don’t “gain in translation,” to use a formulation of David Damrosch’s that I find odious).2 One’s ability to attend an MFA program, for example, or going to elite schools in which one builds networks of people who are helpful later in life, the confidence in yourself that often attends growing up with money: these are often the makings of the successful writer, and undoubtedly such people write in “major” languages, although not necessarily the languages with the largest number of readers: an author who writes in Malayalam or Cantonese may well have more readers than their successful Anglophone counterpart.

    That said, I do address language in the conclusion, where there is scarcely a writer in English to be found. Why don’t we read Brazilian or Arab criticism of the novel, when it is readily available in translation? And, more to the point, why don’t we read novels from those places beyond the handful of translated writers that break through commercially? And this has nothing to do with expanding the “canon,” which is not a topic of the book, although Sarah seems to think that is a central part of my argument. Indeed, the title of Sarah’s response, which she reiterates at the end—“no new masters”—is particularly irrelevant. My point throughout Worlds Enough is that canons are arbitrary creators of random value; they propagate a kind of aesthetic racism that has deeply injurious effects on those who are left out, and unwarranted self-aggrandizing effects on those who are left in. Ameliorating canons is useless: young BIPOC scholars are rightly criticizing the “additive” model, in which we throw Equiano into the Brit Lit survey and call it a day. I am more interested in abolishing the English Department than I am in expanding its precincts; I used to be interested in abolishing the university, but that is now happening without any help from me.

    We need to reconsider and rebuild the entire project of literary study. I only wish that the recent essay in LARB, “Undisciplining Victorian Studies,” had been published before I finished the book: the call of its authors, Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy R. Wong, is that whiteness is the invisible (because universalized) issue that binds us to our reactionary practices. I would say that whiteness is more important than the English language when it comes to normative practices in US literary study. And it is whiteness that must come under scrutiny, as the “unthought known,” a term coined by the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas to suggest that we relive “through language that which is known but not yet thought.”3 As the authors of “Undisciplining Victorian Studies” point out, “anti-racist” reading lists suggest that there are some texts that are about race and some that aren’t—the Victorian novel falling into the latter category, for example.4 This year’s Dickens Universe Conference decided to include a novel by an African American (Frances W. E. Harper’s Iola Leroy) as if there isn’t “race” in the fiction of Dickens himself. I contend that whiteness (and class—another unthought known much of the time) structures our thought, our politics, and blocks our ability to read and teach outside the borders of “periods” that are largely critical hoaxes (or more politely, constructions) that demand a huge amount of hiring in British Literature, leaving no room for all the others who occupy, to quote myself stealing a phrase (thank you Sukanya Banerjee for pointing this out to me) from Dipesh Chakrabarty, “in the waiting room of literary history.”5


    1. See Toral Gajarawala, Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

    2. David Damrosch, What Is World Literature? (Princeton University Press, 2003), 288: “World literature is writing that gains in translation. There is a significant difference between literary language and the various forms of ordinary, denotative language, whose meaning we take to be largely expressed as information.” By this standard, the kinds of African-language literature Sarah studies will not “gain” in translation, although for whom is not clear. (Italics in the original).

    3. See Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (London: Routledge, 2017), 4.

    4. “Undisciplining Victorian Studies” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 10, 2020, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/undisciplining-victorian-studies/.

    5. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), 8.

Response

Closed Off and Already Over?

On Elaine’s Freedgood’s Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel

Realism is strange. It wobbles, it reaches, it flails. Almost manic in its need to move between the fictional and the historical and hold these registers together, it is clumsy in its handling and awkward in its deployment. It is also imperial by excellence, tethered to the project of continual boundary making and territorializing.

This is not the tale we have been told as twenty-first-century readers and scholars of the British realist novel, but it is the one Elaine Freedgood revives in Worlds Enough, which argues that the realist novel was not always “great” (“Make realism great again!” echoes faintly as I write this), that its formal “greatness” is a critical invention of the (later) twentieth-century, and that by seeing this greatness as a fiction itself—part of various “unlikely assemblages” (145) that arise periodically in the Western academy—we can begin to attend to novels differently, and to different novels altogether. The book is daring and electric, and by this I mean that for me, it felt like a series of jolts not unlike those of a defibrillator to a subject—the British realist novel and its critical tradition—from which I work somewhat at a distance, and for which I feel intermingled apathy and intimidation. I’ve often wondered why this is the case; Freedgood’s book helps untangle some of this personal ambivalence toward the realist novel while offering a critical sense of jolting my thinking awake (keeping in mind that jolts can be abrupt, even violent, but also resuscitative and lifesaving).

I can’t think of any other recent book that has so courageously diagnosed the orthodoxies that remain unspoken in the field of Victorian Studies. Twenty-five years ago in Bad Objects (1995), the late feminist theorist Naomi Schor remarked that “within the carefully policed precincts of the academy, some critical objects are promoted to the status of good objects, while others are tabooed” (xv). Schor’s interest in how Anglo-American academic feminism in the 1980s disavowed certain objects of study while promoting others certainly dovetails with the story in Worlds Enough. Freedgood argues that the British realist novel, once a genuinely “bad object,” paradoxically becomes a “good” one through the negative dialectic of structuralist and poststructuralist theory, and gains a powerful and entrenched status as formally “less interesting and less problematic than what it had been for previous generations of more skeptical critics” (11). Attending to this history crucially reveals the randomness of “our canonical exclusions and inclusions” (15). But it also shows us—or I should say, jolts us into scrutinizing—the arbitrariness of aesthetic judgment itself, especially with regards to the recent priority of “form” in literary studies and Victorian Studies in particular.

I am struck, for instance, by two separate conversations in literary and cultural criticism that Freedgood’s work helps bridge. On the one hand, a slew of recent books make the attempt to rethink the form of the Victorian novel and Victorian formalism itself as “good,” in the widest possible sense of this word.1 These works appear recuperative toward nineteenth-century aesthetic form, in that they place aesthetics within an overall humanist tradition that “we” in the contemporary moment have inherited. On the other hand, critics across queer of color theory, black studies, and Indigenous studies have drawn attention to the ways in which histories of colonial violence and chattel slavery underwrite not only bourgeois liberal modernity, but also deeply stratified notions of the “human” itself.2 This incisive set of critiques scrutinizes the kinds of humanism that drive a certain revival of aesthetic form in the humanities, and it seems to me of enormous consequence in reading and engaging the nineteenth century.

In Freedgood’s rereading and rethinking of realism—which not only reveals formal and aesthetic ruptures, but crucially, ontological, and epistemic ones—uncomfortable truths rise to the surface that are of a piece with minoritarian critiques of humanism and its concomitant discourse in the humanities: the “aesthetic racism” of the realist novel and its critical history; the smoothing over of formal rupture to construct the “impossible ontology” of the liberal subject and its needs to occupy, indeed exist, in various worlds at once; and the smallness of the familiar “we” invoked throughout literary criticism, “as the ubiquity of homelessness and statelessness in our world makes education, study, reading, and thinking the precincts of the very few” (33).

* * *

For Freedgood, metalepsis, which occurs “when one diegetic or ontological level intrudes upon another,” is what realist novels employ to tether themselves to world(s) and to ground referentiality. But as readers of her work have pointed out elsewhere, metalepsis is also malleable and given to possibility.3 Inhabiting a body, desiring the social, reading and feeling history: these basic coordinates for living are also the grounds for wider kinds of metaleptic rupture, as my friend Cristina Griffin has observed.4 And Worlds Enough itself functions in a metaleptic mode, by rupturing the membrane between scholarly and fictional worlds in a manner far less reassuring, and more open-ended, than what we have been trained to naturalize in the realist novel. By peering at nineteenth-century fiction askance, Freedgood defamiliarizes the critical heritage of this particular kind of realism by turning metalepsis inside out, jolting the device traditionally used to solidify back into its destabilizing weirdness. In doing so, Worlds Enough lays bare how realism has been made to operate in narrow and rigid ways to demarcate the field of Victorian Studies, just as the novel has been made to demarcate a narrow diegesis. Both, then, have become bounded spaces with an inside and an outside, to devastating effect: they make for us a “closed-off, already over world” (25).

As minoritarian critiques of Western humanism have made explicit, there are certain bodies that obtain the privilege of moving across these spaces and of being at home everywhere: this is a sort of ontological freedom supplied by form, a liberation from the “raw material” of the body and other such crude matter that has historically weighed and continues to weigh down other people, places, and novels. In her astonishing chapter on “Denotation” Freedgood takes this “weighing down” literally, recalling, I think, a long philosophical and literary history (Western) without ever explicitly saying so. Here, she queries the epistemic project of reference in the realist novel by way of ballast: material that weighs down ships or vehicles and provides stability, if not any immediate value. “Ballast is generic weight,” she writes, “it circulates species, specimens, and potential commodities accidentally. It creates random migration and random value” (37). In its relationship to the commodity form, ballast is confusing at best: it can “suddenly become precious” (37), or even “create disturbance and disaster: larvae and microorganisms picked up in one port and then dumped in another change or destroy environments” (37). Ballast thus stretches the critical possibilities and limits of reference and metaphoricity, especially in the traffic between text and world.

Freedgood considers various kinds of ballast, from stones to conch shells—and as the seemingly accidental residue of maritime fiction—but I get a sense that the intellectual adventure of this chapter exceeds the purview of material culture (or even an overly simplified “New Materialist” reading of realism). It is an experiment in reading literally, begun in her previous book, The Ideas in Things (2006). Yet here Freedgood goes further in radically dislodging and shaking out the opposition between form and matter—what simply “weighs down” a novel and what transcends it or remains immune to its contingent effects.

And this is the very opposition that has structured the elevation of the Western realist novel at the expense of works by writers of color, at the expense of writing in other languages, cultures, and traditions. Freedgood’s reading method—virtuosic in its examination of the “ballastic”—puts the raw material back inside realism, such that the boundaries between form and matter, aesthetics and politics, the real and the fictional, effectively collapse, and become newly imbricated in surprising and often unsettling ways. Ballast is a reminder that matter—things, novels, people—doesn’t readily translate into mattering, and by making this explicit, Freedgood makes the “stuff” of realism newly responsible to the present and to decolonial thought.

* * *

“Imagining the world is a way of living it,” Freedgood simply puts it (97). Worlds Enough largely treats this imagining as part of the British novel’s colonizing project: first generating a cartographic imaginary before purporting to locate its “real world” reference point. But I wonder anew about the contours of this statement as I finish writing this essay in a world that seems completely changed from the one in which I began it. This is a world in which everyone is closed off, at least physically. In which accidental circulation has and continues to be deadly. It is an unprecedented world; though one, perhaps, that has already been given in fiction.

Some of my key questions for Worlds Enough, surrounding the responsibility of literary critics to the “worldliness,” to use Edward Said’s term, of texts, are unchanged. And I continue to find urgent—probably even more so—the questions of how institutional precarity of literary study, climate disaster, and the mundane violence of late capitalism informs critical approaches to the novel in an era that lacks the ontological assurance that earlier critics may have taken for granted. Yet I would be remiss not to note here that the wide and discomforting edges and gutters of Worlds Enough have sharply, suddenly, gotten wider and more discomforting.

The pandemic has profoundly altered our relationship to our material environments, and to any prior sense of the term “worldly.” In thinking about this, I am fully aware that what I am performing is what Lauren Berlant calls “the genre flail,” a wobbling of expectation and attachment in the face of disaster, “a mode of crisis management that arises after the first gasp of shock or disbelief, or the last gasp of exhaustion.”5 There currently seems to be no analogy nor agreement about the scale of our experience nor how to shift it, redress violence, and properly care for another. But of this wobbling and flailing Berlant also finds the murmurs of a collective attunement: “The violence of the world makes us flail about for things to read with, people to talk to, and material for inducing transformations, that can make it possible . . . to be disturbed together, thrashing with, and creating value through a shift in the object.”6

British realism might be closed off, and already over. But I’m reading it, through Freedgood and this pandemic, as a vertiginous, thrashing object, an “extinction” of genre. In its rogue intimacy with its own annihilation, it converses with the possibility of our own. Worlds Enough questions not only our own ontological solidity and future stability, but the promise of a coherent world shaped by an idea of genre and reference. Even in its fictional disappointments and loose threads, the realist novel charted a comforting path, an outline for the real. But without the fictions that criticism provides, there is less of an outline, let alone a programmatic way to live, think, and feel. For Said, the literary critic should reject existing boundaries and systems of stabilizing one’s “place” in the world, and should rather “trouble the quasi-religious authority of being comfortably at home among one’s people, supported by known powers and acceptable values, protected against the outside world.”7 In Worlds Enough’s theoretical and intellectual errancy, Freedgood seems to activate Said’s worldliness in a new key—and to do so for what is quite possibly an entirely new world.


  1. See, for example, Jesse Rosenthal, Good Form: The Ethical Experience of the Victorian Novel (Princeton University Press, 2016); Benjamin Morgan, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (Chicago University Press, 2018); Nathan Hensley, Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (Oxford University Press, 2016).

  2. See Kandice Chuh, The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man” (Duke University Press, 2019); Kyla Tompkins, “Writing against the Human in the Humanities: A Review Essay,” American Literature 70.4 (2018); Fred Moten, “Black Kant (Pronounced Chant),” a theorizing lecture at Kelly Writers House, February 27, 2007; Rei Terada, “Hegel’s Racism for Radicals,” Radical Philosophy 2.05 (2019).

  3. See Special Cluster: Essays in Honor of Elaine Freedgood in Victorian Literature and Culture 47:3 (Fall 2019).

  4. See Cristina Griffin, “Experiencing History and Encountering Fiction in Vanity Fair,” Victorian Studies 58.3 (2016) 412–35.

  5. Lauren Berlant, “Genre Flailing,” Capacious 1.4 (2019).

  6. Berlant, “Genre Flailing.”

  7. Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Harvard University Press, 1983), 15–16.

  • Elaine Freedgood

    Reply

    Back in the World: Response to Ronjaunee Chatterjee

    In The World, The Text and the Critic, Edward W. Said contends, with force and confidence, that every text has an effect on the world. In what Ronjaunee Chatterjee describes as “an entirely new world”—our pandemic planet—that force may be dissipating. When I was writing Worlds Enough (over more than ten years) my own sense of the ideological power of the Victorian novel and its criticism was probably overblown and it now seems a little quaint, or, more likely, out of touch. I learned from teaching in prison that novels are not as special or powerful as I think they are: a student in the facility where I taught asked me, angrily, why I would teach fiction about slavery (we were reading Benito Cereno). My incarcerated students were more interested in history and theory, and thought of novels as not really academic material. I realized what a small world I live in, and how big a deal I make my object of study.

    This experience, and Ronjaunee’s questioning of the futures of genre and reference, makes me think that literature is receding as an important object of study and that we need perhaps to return to the “studies” concept on which our field was founded, in which literature was one object of study among many others: Victorian Studies was not primarily about the novel or poetry when I was in graduate school: almost everyone was doing cultural studies and my dissertation / first book has novels only in its footnotes and nonfiction prose from statistical manuals to ballooning memoirs in the main text. We have become very literary (as opposed to textual), and part of this, as Ronjaunee also points out, is the recent fetish, or talisman, of “form.”

    Of course we all work on form: everyone’s object of study comes in a shape, and we can recognize that shape and say what we think that shape is doing. None of us talks much about what novels are about, but about how they are about whatever it is they concern. This is my understanding of form: the how of the text. We can find “form” and declare it a discovery, or put it in the basket of social constructions that made us, at one time, rethink so many categories of knowledge. Recent formalist critics seem to think they are breaking new ground and seem to have forgotten the intensely political formalism of Barbara Hardy, Dorothy Van Ghent, Fredric Jameson, Catherine Gallagher, D. A. Miller, Edward Said, and Roland Barthes—to name just a few critics. Now there is scarcely a monograph on the novel that does not have “form” in its title: good form, bad form, or, just forms. I do not know how these studies, most of which I have read, differ from earlier studies of form, except that they become more and more of an abstraction of late. Like Marx’s fetish, it becomes the highest form of abstraction. But it is also a talisman: if I say form, I am doing real literary study. If I say race, if I say gender or transgender, if I say settler colonialism, I am doing something else. Something less refined, perhaps; something less rigorous.

    A stunning example of this false dichotomy occurs in Caroline Levine’s much-lauded Forms: “Racism, for example, operates most often as a stark binary, a blunt political instrument rather than a complex formation itself.”1 No footnote follows this statement. But a footnote opposing the complete absurdity of this statement could go on for pages (and for days), beginning with Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk, where many colors are conjured and discussed, through C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938), which anatomizes the conflicts between mulatto and black Haitians during the revolution,, and continuing through the massive archive of work by African American, African Diasporic, Latinex, Native American, Asian American and other scholars who have studied all the shades, and all the shade that gets thrown.

    We need to move beyond the stalled binary between form and content. We cannot separate them in practice; we don’t really know which is which, and, and as I mentioned earlier, the proliferation of abstraction is like the fate of the fetish in volume 3 of Marx’s Capital: “In interest-bearing capital . . . this automatic fetish is elaborated into its pure form, self-valorizing value, money breeding money, and in this form it no longer bears any mark of its origin.”2 This makes great sense since the fetish is a European fantasy, and I think form may be as well.

    Form, in current literary study, is a fetish in Marx’s (racist) use of the term: it is self-valorizing and breeds itself from itself, when everything becomes an analogy to everything else and abstraction wins the day. Of course, when caught up in this pursuit, texts that examine both form and content get ignored because they have their feet on the ground. Specific ground, where things have happened and are happening: complex formations of race, politics, story, violence, and triumph.

    The study of form is not concerned, in many cases, with the details of everyday life as it is lived outside novels and universities: freedom and bondage are literal conditions. If we are going to be worldly in a new key, to quote Ronjaunee, we cannot separate ourselves from the particulars. That means more reading than writing, trying to talk to people we don’t usually know, finding out what life is like for people both inside and outside the academy whose home (if they have one) is at the margins. I’ll conclude with a quote from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten:

    The university is not the opposite of the prison, since they are both involved in their way with the reduction and command of the individual. And indeed, under the circumstances, more universities and fewer prisons would, it has to be concluded, mean the memory of war was being further lost, and living unconquered, conquered labor abandoned to its lowdown fate.3

    Many of us hold the status of conquered labor (whether or not we know it); let us study our lowdown fate and affiliate, to use a favorite term of Said’s, with those who share it, within and beyond the university.


    1. Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton University Press, 2015), xi.

    2. Karl Marx, David Fernbach, and Ernest Mandel, Capital, vol. 3 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 516.

    3. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2013), 42.

Response

The Victorian Realist Novel and the Function of Criticism in the Present Time

In his preface to Indulekha (1889), reputedly the first novel written in Malayalam, the author, O. Chandumenon, who was also a colonial bureaucrat in the Madras presidency, noted: “When an intelligent and cultivated person reads a well-crafted story, he is all the time fully aware that the incidents related there have not taken place. All the same there is no doubt that he will experience the same force that he would have experienced, had he known the story to be true.”1 At the time of writing, Chandumenon was avowedly taken by “English novels,” and Indulekha was his direct attempt to write “something like” one.2 It became a runaway success. What is striking about Chandumenon’s observation about reading is his appreciative awareness of the seemingly intimate and smooth connection between fictionality and plausibility that underwrote the “well-crafted” Victorian novel. But his was just one view.

Victorian literary critics, as Elaine Freedgood reminds us in her characteristically brilliant Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel, adopted a far less charitable view, noting instead the Victorian novel’s diegetic interruptions and formal discontinuities. According to Freedgood, it was not until well after the mid-twentieth century that the Victorian novel was pronounced “great” and “realistic” in the annals of literary scholarship, which is to say, accorded the same response (and for the same reasons) as readers like Chandumenon.

Freedgood’s intellectual project in Worlds Enough, however, is to “restore the full oddness of the nineteenth-century novel” (x). It is to remind us of the novel’s perceived failures and counter our literary amnesia of when and why it was not considered “great.” Doing so does not seem to be so much about fastidious literary-historical record-keeping (which, in any case, would not have been out of place) as it is about an urgency to reconsider which records are kept, and why, and how. The project is to consider new frames for reading novels such as, say, Indulekha, other than the familiar one of “influence,” which takes the metropolitan Victorian novel’s “realist” accomplishments at face value and for granted. Worlds Enough reminds us, instead, that in its antidiegeticism, the Victorian realist novel is actually “full of self-reflexivity and hijinks” (x), hardly the model for classic realism. But that is not how we have read it, and Freedgood presses us to do so, reminding us of all the metaleptic elements that shatter the diegetic world of the Victorian realist novel: denotation, omniscience, paratext, hetero-ontologicality, and reference.

Consequently, towards the end of Worlds Enough, Freedgood states, “I have tried to argue throughout this book that there are no novels that are ‘seamless’ and that such a condition is a dream of Western criticism, which at a certain point, wants the novel to be great, invents realism, and makes it formally coherent” (137). For some (odd) reason, that sentence brought to mind John Ruskin’s pronouncement in “On the Nature of Gothic” (1853) against demanding an “exact finish” and his exhortation to take pleasure, instead, in the “roughness” characterizing Gothic architecture.3 Although in the essay Ruskin makes references to literature, his inclination toward “roughness” in architecture cannot quite be analogized with Freedgood’s call to acknowledge the “oddness” of the realist novel for a number of reasons, not least because, for Ruskin, “roughness” functions as a signature of religious, specifically Christian, humility. I do not mean to conflate “roughness” with “oddness” and thereby confuse what is potentially a judgement of technical dexterity with an observation of what is incongruous. But if I render “roughness” and “oddness” temporarily cognate, it is because both those terms productively detract from a seamless reading/viewing experience.

In Freedgood’s reading, denotation—the subject of one her five case studies—makes for what can perhaps be described as a “clunky” realism. Sure, the denotative aspects of a novel (that which provides technical, factual, or material “reference”) helps us decide if the “fictional is like the real, and the real like the fictional,” but in so doing, it also “takes us away from the novel and toward other sources of information” (35). In another essay, Freedgood and coauthor Cannon Schmitt point out that to read literally, denotatively, or technically (the terms that title their essay) is to “read slowly, repeatedly, even stumblingly.”4 My own denotative reading of Mary Barton (a reading that is indebted to Freedgood’s earlier work on that novel), was admittedly slow, if not disorienting. In tracing the novel’s references to the mid-nineteenth-century trade in cotton and its manufacture, I found myself considering the relation between soil content, the design of spinning machines, and the length of cotton fiber. Such considerations interrupted my reading of the (mis)fortunes of the Bartons and Davenports, gesturing instead to the extent to which the fictional world of Mary Barton ceaselessly traffics with not only Victorian Manchester (or Canada) but also with nineteenth-century India and the antebellum South. But this slow and interruption-filled denotative reading also yielded an enhanced sense of the fascinating relationality amongst and between the worlds—human and nonhuman—that the novel both inhabits and creates.5

Denotative reading is less about historicization (although it can be about that too) and more about precision (an important term in Worlds Enough). Once again, and perhaps not so oddly, Ruskin comes to mind: “I have just said that every class of rock, earth, and cloud, must be known by the painter with geologic and meteorologic accuracy.”6 Incidentally, this is an observation from Modern Painters Volume I (1843), which laid the ground for his later etching of realism in Modern Painters Volume III (1856) that famously informed George Eliot’s realistic renditions, especially Adam Bede (1859). Does the denotative “oddness” that seems to detract from the continuities of the Victorian realist novel—one that took me away from the Bartons and Davenports, for instance—serve, then, to mark a realism that is ecologically significant? Might reading in all the ways that Worlds Enough reminds us to further the ecological function of criticism in our present time? It is surely not a coincidence that in Worlds Enough, Freedgood uses the ecologically-freighted term “ballast”—material carried by ships, traversing land and water, and comprising organic and inorganic material—as a metaphor for denotation.

While the question of ecology is implicit in Worlds Enough, that of place assumes overt and pressing significance. The imputed greatness of the Victorian novel puts novels of “other” literary traditions (Indulekha) in their place, which is to say, in the “waiting room of literary history” (1). If the imprimatur of Victorian realism calibrates, as it does, a scale of literary development, then it functions somewhat analogously, if not in coincidence, to the civilizational scale of development endorsed by Victorian anthropology that withheld political self-determination from colonial dominions, which were consequently relegated to what Dipesh Chakrabarty describes as the “waiting room of history.” Chakrabarty calls, as we know, for an interrogation of the universalist ideals of modernity that posit Europe at the apex of history. This is not so much to pluralize those ideals as to underscore their compromised provenance and working; it is a call, in other words, to “provincialize Europe.”7

This is exactly what Freedgood accomplishes with regard to literary history (which in any case crisscrosses with national histories in ways that render the discrete and unitary concept of “national literatures” highly problematic): Worlds Enough provincializes the Victorian realist novel. It bares its formal inconsistencies and messiness, uncovering what is at best a “patchwork realism” without suggesting that realism itself is perfectible elsewhere or otherwise. Instead of resorting to a particularist argument (pointing to examples of particular novels whose structural “flaws” would make the case, a move that then runs the risk of being overwritten by examples that prove the opposite), Worlds Enough reveals the realist novel to be discontinuous and inconsistent at its functional core, so to speak.

The terminology of “core” has a double valence here because in the context of empire, Victorian Britain functions as the metropolitan core designating as well as arrogating aesthetic, social, economic, and cultural value. Such a positioning made it entirely predictable for the Victorian novel to emerge as providing the “standard narrative” (32) in novel writing, a designation that English-educated subjects such as Chandumenon evidently endorsed. An overhaul of the elements constituting the Victorian novel’s narrative core, then, questions not only the mantle it wears as the standard-bearer of a “classic realism,” but also its received position on the geoimperial map of metropolitan-colonial literatures.8 It gives the lie to the waiting room of literary history, yielding instead a multipolar literary terrain. This is certainly not to wish away the profound systemic inequities marking the imperial terrain; rather, it is to avoid assuming or replicating those inequities in the assignment of literary value.

An expansion of the nineteenth-century literary repertoire, then, rests not so much on a gesture of inclusiveness, whose additive logic is often arbitrary or exhaustible, as on a powerful acknowledgment of the charged and dynamic nature of this enhanced literary landscape. Subtracting a modular realism from the picture also requires us to register the emergence and growth of the realist novel in multiple sites as coeval and tangled responses to conditions of modernity, howsoever uneven their effects may have been (and remain). This also has consequences for the study of nineteenth-century colonial literatures: we need to shift the focus from showcasing their claims to exceptionalism vis-à-vis hegemonic “core” metropolitan literary values to fashioning instead a critical inquiry that introspects the ideological and formal exclusions that these texts enact as well.9

Freedgood reminds us that if the Victorian realist novel has been read as providing a “standard narrative,” that is due in no small part to the proclivities of mid-twentieth-century literary scholarship, which only belatedly pronounced the Victorian novel “great” by reading over (or not reading) the diegetic lapses that a century of scholarship had hitherto either disparaged or apologetically made amends for. One wonders—and this is suggested by Freedgood’s phrasing of her intent to “restore the full oddness of the nineteenth-century novel” (italics mine)—if the nineteenth-century novel becomes “Victorian” precisely through a glossing over of its diegetic inconsistencies. In other words, is Victorian construed in terms of uninterrupted wholeness? If so, what role might our non-reading of the extra-diegetic elements of its most enduring cultural artefact—the novel—play in crystallizing “Victorian” to denote (!) a geoethnic continuum?

Worlds Enough powerfully suggests that in normativizing the Victorian realist novel, we effect a reading practice that cuts off the “ontological open circuit”—between “fiction and the world,” “fantasy” and “history”—that the novel actually creates (33). Such a reading also yokes “Victorian” with continuity. It forfeits the discontinuous histories and geographies that nonetheless sustained Victorian Britain; it runs the risk of sustaining its isolationist myths, however splendid. Freedgood is acutely aware of such consequences, hence the urgency of her injunction. Keeping the ontological open circuit of the Victorian realist novel alive will go a long way in recharging not only our study of Victorian Britain and its empire, but also the global literary map.

For this, and so much more, Elaine, very many thanks.


  1. O. Chandumenon, preface to the first edition of Indulekha, in Indulekha by O. Chandumenon, trans. Anitha Devasia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), 238–39.

  2. Chandumenon, Indulekha, 238.

  3. John Ruskin, “The Nature of Gothic,” in Unto This Last and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 88, 82.

  4. Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt, “Denotatively, Technically, Literally,” Representations 125.1 (Winter 2014) 10.

  5. Sukanya Banerjee, “Ecologies of Cotton,” forthcoming in Nineteenth-Century Contexts (2020).

  6. John Ruskin, preface to the second edition (1844), Modern Painters Volume I, in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903), 38.

  7. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000).

  8. It is important to reconsider the place and attributes of classic realism in Victorian literature even as—or especially because—the significance of realism is being productively invoked in discussions of twenty-first-century literatures. See “Peripheral Realisms Now,” special issue of Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (September 2012), ed. Joe Cleary, Jed Esty, and Colleen Lye.

  9. For an elaboration of this point with reference to the study of Victorian British literature and Bengali literature, see Firdous Azim, The Colonial Rise of the Novel (London: Routledge, 1993).

  • Elaine Freedgood

    Reply

    Necessary Displacements: Response to Sukanya Banerjee

    Sukanya picks up an unconscious but typical amalgamation in my argument: the syncopated step I take from the “nineteenth-century novel” to the “Victorian novel.” As she points out, the solidification of the novel when it becomes “Victorian” suggests that “Victorian” stands for some kind of consolidated whole, something stable, in Sukanya’s words:

    If the imprimatur of Victorian realism calibrates, as it does, a scale of literary development, then it functions somewhat analogously, if not in coincidence, to the civilizational scale of development endorsed by Victorian anthropology that withheld political self-determination from colonial dominions, which were consequently relegated to what Dipesh Chakrabarty describes as the “waiting room of history.”

    We might want to run like the devil from its values, plots, and roles, but they are “norms” we have not, as Foucault pointed out about “we other Victorians,” left behind. Sukanya’s deft reading makes me realize that I have not thought nearly enough about the amputation of Romanticism from the Victorian period, and how a teenage queen could possibly begin, metaphorically or otherwise, one aesthetic movement and end another. The Romantic novel, after all, is a patchwork of genres: historical, Gothic, national, domestic, and even revolutionary.1 The Victorian novel, I argue in Worlds Enough, is just as much of a mess, but was reimagined, in the 1980s, into a seamless genre. And this is not only an issue of literary periods, but also of literary places: “It forfeits the discontinuous histories and geographies that nonetheless sustained Victorian Britain; it runs the risk of sustaining its isolationist myths, however splendid,” Sukanya writes.

    Why does a literary period named for a monarch come after one named for an aesthetic and political movement? Why does Victoria, as figure and figurehead, name a period that was not ideologically stable, but as full of revolutionary potential as it was of bourgeois boredom? Because, as Manu Samriti Chander suggested to me: empire.2 You need a queen (and eventually her prince consort) to organize things, or to suggest the idea of order. That order eventually gets conferred on the novel, in the twentieth century, when the Victorian period takes on an even greater air of stability than it projected for itself. And yet order is not what we get from the period if we keep checking the angles, the intersections, the routes of thought and the channels of ideas in a small country that could not have survived without the spoils of its empire. Even given the immensity of that empire, it is worth keeping in mind that for most writers around the world in the years of Victoria’s reign, Britain simply did not matter. There were genres other than the novel that were being written, performed, and transmitted with no need for recognition from Britain, or “the West.”

    For others, like C. L. R. James, the early African nationalists, Victorian Indians, and African Americans, the values and virtues of the Victorian period (probably more often largely imagined through church and literature than through any experience of white British Victorians), offered a kind of modernity that could help them supersede subjection. C. L. R. James, in Beyond a Boundary, gives us his marvelously conflicted relationship to his family, cricket, and Vanity Fair. He was educated by Oxbridge men (including very forthright racists), he was taught to follow the rules of cricket no matter what, and he both mocks himself and holds his earlier, pre-Marxist self—the only expression I can think of is “dear.” What choice did he have if he wanted to become a participant in the world: “Everything began from the premise that Britain was the source of all light and leading, and our business was to admire, wonder, imitate [and] learn.”3 And James excelled at this borrowed culture. We might say he invented it, as we invent parents and other good objects to sustain us in a world that is deeply miserable.

    Simon Gikandi asserts that “Victorianism was not a discourse or ideology that was simply imposed on the colonized; it was also a set of ideas and ideals that were deployed by colonial subjects as a means to a different end—their own freedom.”4 Nasser Mufti notes that Anti-Colonial Pan-Africanists including James, but also W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Eric Williams, “who were all avid readers of Victorian literature . . . understood Victorian literature and culture as fields of intelligibility for the twentieth century.”5 Is it still possible to deploy those ideas? Have they fossilized into clichés that we laugh off but rewrite?

    Using Sukanya’s idea of the “transimperial,” in which “a transimperial lens of study, while certainly not valorizing ‘empire,’ keeps alive the asymmetries, tensions and collaborations that held/hold dispersed constituencies together.” I love this idea: I would love to enact it in my thinking, teaching, and writing. And yet I wonder about the partial elision of power in this formulation. If “World Literature” pretends empire never happened, then the transimperial would suggest that its destruction can be undone. Black and brown writers have been so marginalized for so long that I would suggest that we teach at least half of British Literature courses with only writers of color on the syllabus. Otherwise, we will remain in what Sukanya and others have described as the additive model:

    An expansion of the nineteenth-century literary repertoire, then, rests not so much on a gesture of inclusiveness, whose additive logic is often arbitrary or exhaustible, as on a powerful acknowledgment of the charged and dynamic nature of this enhanced literary landscape. Subtracting a modular realism from the picture also requires us to register the emergence and growth of the realist novel in multiple sites as coeval and tangled responses to conditions of modernity, howsoever uneven their effects may have been (and remain).6

    I would add that expansion must include displacement: we cannot accomplish the goals Sukanya envisions through interlarding writers of color who will necessarily be regarded as less important, because they do not displace their predecessors. Displacement may be violent, but we could also see it as the order of succession, where writers cede their places, as humans always have to do. Other disciplines do not hang on to the same material for a hundred years, and many are more vibrant than the English Department of this moment.

    We could design individual courses that do this: Literature of the British Empire, with all colonized writers, for example. This would be a proper course of study in an English Department, because it would retrace the steps of our very young discipline back to the empire where the study of English was developed, and read the literature that British literature tried to destroy and replace. There is no need, there is no serious aesthetic rationale for reading and rereading George Eliot or Charles Dickens. There is a largely political rationale for separating Romanticism from Victorianism: one we can reject. We could read not only otherwise, but others. The decentering of whiteness, of empire, of bourgeois domination, has to happen everywhere if it is going to happen anywhere. Our place is in the classroom and in our written scholarship, and in our hiring and tenuring decisions. We can start there.


    1. See Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Harvard University Press, 1972), and Thomas Mole, What the Victorians Made of Romanticism: Material Affiliations, Cultural Practices, and Reception History (Princeton University Press, 2017).

    2. Personal communication.

    3. C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary, 50th anniversary ed. (Duke University Press, 2013), 39–40.

    4. Simon Gikandi, “The Embarrassment of Victorianism: Colonial Subjects and the Lure of England,” in John Kucich and Diane Sadoff, Victorian After Life: Postmodern Culture Re-writes the Nineteenth Century (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 182.

    5. Nasser Mufti, “Hating Victorian Studies Properly,” forthcoming in Victorian Studies.

    6. Sukanya Banerjee, “The Victorian Realist Novel and Function of Criticism in the Present Time.” See also, “Transimperial,” Victorian Literature & Culture 46 (Fall/Winter 2018) 3–4.

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